Print options

March 29, 2013

US College Students' Inventions Help Developing Countries

by Deborah Block

Innovations and inventions which can help people in developing countries were on display recently in Washington. Cutting-edge ideas of 13 college teams from across the United States, included a portable greenhouse, a better container for vaccines, and an earthquake-resistant concrete panel.

Many small-scale farmers in East Africa find it hard to grow crops year-round because of drought or too much rain. So a student team from Pennsylvania State University came up with the idea of kits to build small, easy-to-set up greenhouses to help the farmers increase their production up to 20 percent.  Team member Arianna DeReus says they're constructed with PVC pipe and rice bags.

“Our design is affordable, durable and expandable, and it’s also made of local materials," DeReus explained. "That reduces transportation costs and it also supports the local economy.”

The greenhouse is part of an exhibition called Open Minds, sponsored by National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance.  Each year, it gives grants to more than 50 college student teams which create business models using innovative technology to help people around the world. The top teams are chosen for an annual exhibition.

Solutions for real-world problems

The Alliance was founded in 1995 by the Lemelson Foundation, which supports grassroots inventors.  Director Carol Dahl says the young entrepreneurs are helping to lift people out of poverty. “In the developing countries, we see the potential for our inventions to actually improve lives through addressing basic human needs, things like sanitation, access to clean water," she said. "The ability to have health and health products.”

This container may improve the health of many people in the developing world by better protecting vaccines. Standard Styrofoam boxes break easily, so the World Health Organization estimates that half the vaccines placed in them are damaged in transit.  But a student team from Oklahoma State University hopes that by using this collapsible box, temperature-sensitive vaccines will be saved.

Saravan Kumar says the boxes are made from the same space-age material used to fashion small satellites. “They’re made with this thin, insulating material, and they are about 10 times more insulating than Styrofoam, and they’re about 10 times more impact resistant,” he added.

This lightweight concrete panel may help homes in Haiti withstand an earthquake.  Students from the University of Notre Dame discovered that the masonry blocks used in Haiti are poor quality and not reinforced.

Dustin Mix says the cost of building with these panels would be about the same, for a much sturdier and safer home. “It’s a lot better quality and that comes from both the materials we use and the process we use to make them," he said. "It is also reinforced in a way that when the earthquake does come, it can withstand that.”

The students hope innovations like these will make a difference for those who need it the most.